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Syria’s Idlib province – A humanitarian disaster waiting to happen

The Syrian civil war has raged for 7 years and has involved geopolitical rivals and great powers, the United States (US) and Russia, as well as all Syria’s regional neighbours supporting different sides of the war. The involvement of Russia in the civil war and the support it has provided the Assad regime has changed the tides of conflict, as the regime has made irreversible gains against rebel groups. International opinion now reflects that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won the war or at least isn’t going anywhere soon.

The Syrian civil war evolved from a popular revolt against state-sanctioned democratic crackdowns to an extremist safe-haven, where fundamentalist groups operate freely and play government, absorbing smaller moderate rebel groups in the process.

The Syrian military has utilised a successful campaign of besieging rebel-controlled pockets, allowing minimal food and medicine into the rebel territory. Rebel territories are then bombed aggressively, wearing down rebels and the communities they control, who are then offered reconciliation deals with the Syrian government or the alternative, a free bus ride to Idlib province to join up with other rebels.

Next Stop – Idlib

Idlib province is in north-western Syria and borders Turkey. It has been under rebel control since 2015 after rebel groups received more resources from their regional sponsors allowing them to conduct a larger campaign against Syrian forces. Sunni fundamentalist groups Ahrar al-Sham and the Al-Qaeda linked Tahrir al-Sham have largely controlled Idlib province since seizing the province, with smaller rebel groups being absorbed competitively by each group.

The Syrian regime has had great success using it’s besiege and bus ride strategy, removing rebel pockets across Syria in Ghouta, Daraa and Douma. The benefits of this strategy have provided continued momentum for the regime. For each rebel pocket cleared, military resources are no longer needed and Syrian forces move to other front lines. The regime simultaneously bolsters its rank as surrendering rebels are quickly integrated back in the Syrian forces to repeat the process against the next rebel pocket.

This plans only flaw is that more moderate rebel groups are being absorbed by the larger more extreme groups operating in Idlib – this is strategically important for the Syrian regime who can now label an entire opposition as terrorists and fundamentalists. The Syrian regime has also benefitted from developing rivalries between rebel groups, an assassination campaign by a resurgence Islamic State in the region and the use of regime spies releasing footage of themselves in Idlib to raise tensions.

The Last Rebel Province

As much of rebel-held Syrian territory comes back under government control, less the US supported Kurdish territories to the east and the Turkish backed rebel-controlled territories bordering Turkey, the regime now focuses its sights on Idlib. Tens of thousands battle-hardened militants live with their families in Idlib, as well as 2 million Syrians who have sought to escape the war and government. Idlib has suffered through Syrian and Russian air campaigns in the past but currently, an international backed de-escalation zone stalls the regime and its allies back from conducting a comprehensive campaign.

Syria, Russia and Iran’s language on the agreement has been changing. Representatives from each government are increasingly focusing on the urgency to clear terrorists from Idlib, and not a cessation of hostilities. Syria and Russia have placed pressure on Turkey who has guaranteed the peace agreement and supports many of the rebels in the province, to bring rebels to the negotiating table or to partake in reconciliation. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey has had little success in convincing rebels to lay down arms and join the reconciliation process — adding Tahir al-Sham to its terrorist organisation list. Turkey can, however, assist in opening humanitarian corridors into Turkey and its presence through de-escalation zone observation posts across Idlib reduce the risk of Syria and its allies attacking these points.

US President Donald Trump and the United Nations have both warned against the grave humanitarian outcomes if Assad attacks Idlib. Rebels in Idlib have had years to bolster defences, improve training and logistics and consolidate heavy weaponry. Syria and Iraq have already seen the grave outcomes of protracted urban warfare on civilians and infrastructure in Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul. Idlib has the potential to dwarf all these conflicts.

If Turkey and other regional and international powers have the power and influence to convince some rebels to join the reconciliation process, it still leaves thousands of fundamentalist militants who will not make concessions. The Syrian government has stated its goals is to rid Idlib of terrorists and prevent unnecessary civilian casualties, however, its history in the civil war is one of gross human rights abuse, chemical weapon attacks and an almost complete disregard of human life. Humanitarian corridors will not stop the battle of Idlib casting a dark shadow over the future of the Syrian state.

Matthew Wilson is an International Relations Master's student with a strong interest in national security and strategic studies

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